Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why the firefighters’ lawsuit? Wish we knew


Why is an international firefighters union suing the city of Ketchum? I wish I knew.

What I do know is that the union's accusations are preposterous, and the city has a duty to its citizens to set the record straight.

The major issue appears to be the city's employment "at-will" policy, which the union says it cannot accept. The dismissal "for cause" provision that the union demands is the sort of policy that has contributed to putting many cities throughout the country on the verge of bankruptcy.

Ketchum's "at-will" provision is not only in the city's financial best interest but also is clearly the city's right under the Idaho Constitution. I feel obligated to treat all city employees equally. It is unfair to give benefits to one department that cannot be given to all.

The city's eight full-time firefighters and 39 volunteers are dedicated individuals who make great personal and family sacrifices to protect and serve our community. I know. I spent five years as a member of this department. We owe them our respect and the best working conditions possible.

So why, rather than come to us in 2009 with their concerns, did the eight full-time firefighters choose to unionize? I remain convinced that had they spoken to us first, their issues would have been resolved long ago without lawyers and tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

  Why, too, are out-of-town union officials making inflammatory and false statements that cloud the issues?

For example, the union has asked that the city be held in contempt of court for refusing to meet. This makes no sense. Although we do not believe the city is legally required to meet again at this point, we have sent the union two letters offering to meet on six different dates. The union so far has not responded—except with the contempt motion.

The union questions changes to the city employment handbook. That also makes no sense. The City Council resolution specifically exempted the firefighters when it approved the changes.

Union officials have grossly overstated the city's legal costs, giving a figure almost four times higher than the actual costs. They also neglected to note that the union requested many of the procedures that have increased city costs.

Other actions create doubt and suspicion. For example, the union was responsible for recording the contract negotiations and fact-finding commission meetings. All the tapes from the fact-finding commission are missing and many statements from the contract negotiations that support the city's position have been transcribed as "inaudible."

Also disturbing are the anonymous letters sent to my family and the family of the fire chief. These letters were printed from within the fire station. This harassment is reprehensible and contributes to an atmosphere of distrust.

So, what's next? The city believes that employment must be "at-will," but the union says it will not accept such a provision. The city believes this constitutes an impasse; the union says it does not.

Because there is relatively little case law on union negotiations with public agencies in Idaho, the city has asked the Idaho Supreme Court to review the case.

As we wait for the court's decision, we remain committed to reaching an agreement that will be good for the city, all of our employees and, most importantly, the citizens of Ketchum.

Randy Hall is mayor of Ketchum.

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